Well I survived the sleeper train and made it to Sapa, high in what the French nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps. Sapa is really nice, and much smaller and calmer than Hanoi. You can walk everywhere, but everywhere is also quite a steep walk! Sapa was originally settled by the French in the 1920’s and apparantly it gets quite cold here in December (like below freezing). Now the weather is quite nice, a bit cooler than Hanoi, but not cool enough to warrant a jacket. Sapa is high above a valley and the views are absolutely incredible…mountains and terraced rice patties as far as the eye can see…which in actuality isn’t far at all because the clouds basically envelope the city. Still, it’s quite nice.
As for the train ride last night, I was rather surprised to see that the train car was pretty modern and quite comfortable. I had two choices for classes…hard sleeper and soft sleeper. Hard sleeper is about 1/3 of the price of soft sleeper, but I opted for soft sleeper which gives you a comfy mattress and compartment with a door that closes and individual a/c control. Hard sleeper would’ve meant sleeping on a wooden bench, with 6 to a compartment (as opposed to 4 in soft), with no individual a/c and no separation for the corridor.
Anyways, my compartment mates were these three Vietnamese guys who were friendly, but didn’t speak a word of English. It worked out fine, though I don’t think I slept at all! I may have slept for very small sections, as I recall looking at my watch at around 1:30am and again at 4:15am. We departed Hanoi last night at 9:20pm and were due to arrive in Lao Cai, on the Chinese border, at 5am, though we were a good 45 minutes late (nice to see that Amtrak is no more reliable than the Vietnamese railroad). They had an interesting method of waking people up, fist by playing low music, and eventually by flinging open the compartment doors to announce we were in Lao Cai. I’m not sure, but I think the train may have been continuing on to Kumming, China afterwards. I didn’t get a chance to see the Chinese border because it was about 3km from the train station and upon arrival the people for the vans to Sapa came on the train to guide us in that direction. What definitely got me going this morning (at 6am) was having to walk from the station to the van in the cool rain. Ah well.
The 30km van ride to Sapa took just under an hour and included some wonderful sights of the mountains. On the van, I met this Canadian family who worked in Hanoi and had the extended family visiting, so they were coming here. There were 9 of them all together, including two small children (2 & 6). Upon arrival in Sapa we decided that breakfast took precedents over finding a room (as it was 7am) so we went to this place called Baguettes and Chocolate. It’s a small cafe serving breakfasts and other meals, but their baked goods were outstanding! It was also another of those training program restaurants, like KOTO, the one I went to in Hanoi on Saturday. I joined the Canadians for breakfast, which was delicious.
After breakfast I parted with the Canadians and set off to find a room. I had a place in mind that Lonely Planet recommended, and had to avoid the hordes of people following me around trying to get me to stay at their hotels. According to the map in Lonely Planet, the place should have only been 200m from the restaurant. Well I walked, and walked, and walked and eventually made it out of town (and some ways downhill from town). I saw nothing in sight so I decided to backtrack a ways and settled on this place with a nice view and nice room for US$4 a night. I should add that all the rooms in Vietnam are slightly more than they were in Laos, but come very well equipped for the money (more so than Thai rooms). Another side note, I’m used to handing over my passport for them to write down my info when I check in, but in Vietnam they like to hold on to them for a bit as they have to report your whereabouts to the police. If I recall, it was the same way in the Ukraine as well. Anyways, after I checked in I was totally beat, so I took a nap for the rest of the morning.
I got up from my nap around 12:30pm and felt quite refreshed so I set out to explore the hilly town. I got some lunch, and I should add another side note that food in Vietnam is more expensive than Thai food! After lunch I explored the Sapa market, which is teeming with hill tribe people (that’s the main draw here, there are a bunch of nearby ethnic minority villages). The vendors here are quite ruthless…you can’t even ask how much something is or to see something without being hounded non-stop by them! I did buy a small chopsticks box though that was pretty nice. Speaking of which, they have some fancy chopsticks with mother of pearl inlayed in them here…anyone want any? What about Hmong shirts? I do have some concerns about the dye running on them…according to Lonely Planet they use natural dyes, and that can be a problem.
Other than walking around town, I’ve been taking it easy today. Tomorrow I’m thinking about joining a trek to three different villages nearby. Should be interesting. Anyways, that’s about all for now…life here is calm and relaxing, and it’s a really nice change from the frenzied pace of Hanoi. I think I’m going to take the train back on Wednesday night, and then go straight to Halong Bay for a couple of days. I decided to go solo on that. Sure a tour would be convenient, but I think it’s fun to not have the convenience and find my own way…gives me a better sense of accomplishment. Anyways the sun will be setting soon here…not sure what there is to do in the evenings. Should be interesting!